“An Anthology of Disability Literature”: Christy Thompson Ibrahim, Editor

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An Anthology of Disability Literature, edited by Christy Thompson Ibrahim is an impressively vast collection of both fiction and non-fiction pieces from across various genres and time periods all dealing with the idea of disability in some form.

anthology book cover

Disability in Literature

Authors from Kafka to Michael J. Fox, Tolstoy to Annie Dillard, and Hellen Keller to Jhumpa Lahiri are represented. The disabilities discussed are varied and include autism, quadriplegia, post-partum depression, age-related disability and PTSD among many others. Characters are male and female, old and young. Some stories are written from the perspective of the person with the disability, others from the perspective of a loved one or a narrator. Some are specifically about a disability and in some disability is merely a backdrop. Despite the wide range of work in this anthology, the theme of disability runs throughout and ties these stories together with a surprising cohesiveness, providing the reader with a fascinating, multi-faceted lens through which to consider the concept of disability.

While I can say unequivocally that I enjoyed reading every single piece in this anthology, I find myself continuing to think the most about two in particular. The first is a science fiction piece by Ursala K. Le Guin entitled “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” It is about a Utopian society called Omelas that can only exist if one child from the society is essentially discarded in a dark and dirty dungeon beneath the city. Other children must be told of this child upon coming of age and almost all of them feel outrage and guilt and want to do something to help this child. However, over time most of the children are able to convince themselves that the awful treatment of this one child is justifiable for the greater good of everyone else in the city. A small number of people though, once they learn about the child, walk away from the Utopian society forever, thus the title of the story. This is a very short story – a few pages at most – and yet it’s impact is haunting. It is not hard to make the leap to our own society and consider ways that the disabled have been treated over time in order to make the non-disabled more comfortable and happy.

The other story that stood out to me is “Public Transit” by journalist and disability advocate, John Hockenberry. In this piece Hockenberry, a paraplegic, recounts a journey he took on the NY subway in 1990. He lived in Brooklyn and because the train stop closest to his house was not accessible, if he wanted to get into the Manhattan he typically either took a cab or rolled himself in his wheelchair across the Brooklyn bridge. But, he decided he wanted to see what it would be like to try to get into the city using the subway, and because he worked in public radio, he wore a a microphone the whole time, recording his experience. Reading of his journey was eye-opening. He told of a system he used to get himself and his chair down flights of stairs using an elastic cord tied around his legs. He described various reactions from other subway riders, noting that the only people who offered help to him were people of color. His point was impossible to miss, and frustrating to realize – what one would think would be a simple journey from Brooklyn to Manhattan by subway was, in fact, anything but simple for a person who uses a wheelchair.

At the start of each new work, Thompson includes background information about the author and then follows each piece up with questions for discussion and suggestions for further reading on that particular topic. I definitely valued this aspect of the anthology and have already added several of the suggested pieces to my reading list. My only slight criticism with the anthology is that I wish the background information at the start of each piece also included the date the piece was written, as I think this would allow readers to contemplate ideas and descriptions of disability over time. To note, the publication dates are included on the “Permissions” page at the start of the book and in the bibliography at the end, but I found myself curious about them as I started each new piece and wished that they were more easily referenced. I do have to say, however, that not having the dates as readily available does make it more difficult for the reader to dismiss the experiences and descriptions written about as not applicable to how disability is treated in our society today.

As I said above, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this anthology and cannot recommend it more highly. I re-read several of the pieces multiple times and have already eagerly suggested it to several people I know. This would be an excellent text in history, literature, law, social policy and health-related classes and I can also envision it sparking lively discussions for reading groups. Anyone interested in disability issues should absolutely include this anthology on their reading list, as should anyone simply interested in an informative and thought-provoking good read.